Book Review: B. Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (London, 2016)

In this article, Robert reviews Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation by Brendan Simms, published immediately prior to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2016. The book challenges the existing historical tradition that places Britain as exceptional due to its insular geography and instead gives an account of the centrality of European relations to British home and foreign policy, in the form of a narrative from the medieval period to the present, concluding with a section on modern relations with the European Union. The result is a stimulating read, though is not without shortcomings, most notably in relation to the brisk treatment given to the British Empire.



Robert Frost

Author Biography

Robert Frost (@RobertF32691246) is a first-year AHRC-funded doctoral student with joint Geography and History department supervision for his research on Georgian and early Victorian travel and exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.

B. Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (London, 2016)

By suggesting that the history of England, and later that of the United Kingdom, has been one predominantly determined by its relationship with neighbouring Europe, as opposed to its geographical separation as an island, Brendan Simms propounds a subtle not entirely original, but stimulating paradigm shift in how British history should be viewed,  though by no means one without problems. Britain’s Europe offers a longue durée of over one-thousand years of political history, which covers both Britain’s international relations and its own constitutional development. Simms has two central arguments. First, British foreign policy has consistently been based on a grand strategy of preventing continental Europe from being dominated by a single power, especially in the Low Countries, though later moving east to an obsession with Halford Mackinder’s heartland theory. This was achieved time and again by the country building coalitions to oppose an expansionist power, whether King Phillip II’s Spain or Napoleon’s France. Second, the form of the United Kingdom’s own political geography has been primarily forged in response to its engagement with Europe. Simms traces the emergence of the English nation-state to Alfred the Great’s opposition to the Danes and interprets the Union of the Crowns and the Acts of Union as efforts to expand the resources of England and prevent encirclement by France. By contrast, the British Empire is portrayed solely as a means to increase Britain’s standing in Europe rather than as a legitimate enterprise in its own right. Simms also challenges other quasi-isolationist approaches, in particular the ‘Our island story’ narrative, as particularly grotesque distortions of a reality in which Britain has far more often than not been part of a cross-channel state in some form.[1] Though these ideas do not totally convince, they parallel other authors’ attempts at provincialisation. Simms’ lineage includes Hugh Kearney’s call for a four-nation ‘Britannic’ alternative to ‘self-contained’ histories of England, an approach widened again by Norman Davies’ efforts to set the whole of the British Isles in its European context, which is ultimately Simms’ starting-point.[2] Perhaps the ultimate provincialisation was Brotton’s consideration of Elizabethan England/ Britain in its relation with the geographically-proximate Islamic world, though like Simms, he summarises his approach as being to enrich British history rather than diminish it.[3]

Britain’s Europe consists of ten chapters, which are evenly-spaced chronologically after a brief account of the medieval period. Four-fifths of these offer a chronological narrative of Britain’s history, with interactions with Europe given the centre stage. ‘The Bonds of Christendom’ recounts English/ British-European relations up to the fifteenth century, starting in quite a traditional manner with Alfred’s response to Viking raiders leading to the formation of the English nation-state.[4] Simms reinterprets the Cinque Ports as a ‘cross-channel ferry service’ to link the Anglo-Norman/ French and later Angevin, domains.[5] Simms notes John of Gaunt (Ghent), whose speech is held highly by insular-focused historians such as Christopher Lee, had French origins, as many nobles did, while a common Christian culture provided the basis for crusader alliances.[6] ‘A piece of the continent’ outlines the origins of the (aforementioned) grand strategy that Simms forwards as taking place during national soul-searching after England’s defeat in the Hundred Years’ War.[7] The critical importance of the Low Countries, described as the ‘counter-scarp’ by William Cecil and ‘outworks’ by others, takes shape in an age of England’s navy having neither the technology nor ability to intercept a cross-channel force; the channel could only be a second line of defence.[8] Hence England made common cause with the Dutch early on.[9]

‘The bulwarks of Great Britain’ introduces the importance of Germany and its various incarnations, starting with the Holy Roman Empire, as a key counterbalancing power. Simms also argues that the overlooked union of ‘Hanover-Britain’ was a truly European state.[10] He includes the interesting vignette that before the late eighteenth century, those referring simply to ‘The Empire’ meant the Holy Roman Empire, but even when the expanding British Empire was in mind it was regarded as valuable only in terms of the increased strength it could bring on Europe, especially in territorial swaps such as after the Seven Years’ War.[11] ‘The Age of revolution’ on the French and American revolutionary wars serves as a warning as to what could happen when Britain sidelined continental engagement in favour of an imperial ‘blue water’ approach: the ‘first’ British Empire was partitioned.[12]

‘The age of Napoleon’ recounts what may be the best-known pre-twentieth century example of an isolated Britain bringing together a grand coalition and leading it to eventual victory.[13] Simms introduces the ‘fiscal-military’ state as a key advantage that Britain had over rival states, especially France. By way of an ‘implicit contract’ that had grown up between political elites and private finance over the preceding century, the country was able to tap into private wealth generated during the Industrial Revolution by way of credit. In turn, parliamentary democracy gave the British state greater legitimacy than others.[14] Simms also finds the threat from revolutionary France to be decisive in leading to the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800.[15] ‘Britain and Europe in the age of nationalism’ surveys the long nineteenth century, during which Britain was forced to contend with an acquiescent German confederation morphing into a rival German Empire under Bismarck, a transformation which made the self-centred British guarantee of Belgian independent-neutrality from France dangerously anachronistic in 1914.[16]

‘Britain and Europe in the age of total war’ covers Britain’s handling of the ‘German Question’; mobilising a global coalition to prevent domination of Europe by Germany in two world wars.[17] As in 1792-1815, Simms holds Britain’s parliamentary and ‘fiscal-military’ state as key, a conclusion also recently reached by Adam Tooze.[18] Irish independence is ignored however. The final chronological chapter is devoted to events since 1945 in which Britain faced a ‘negotiated merger’ with the European Economic Community and European Union rather than a ‘hostile takeover’, which, unlike earlier Acts of Union, diluted power in Westminster.[19] Simms is critical of the chances Britain might have had in the nascent European Coal and Steel Community, maintaining that such a move would have been catastrophic for domestic industry and still-strong Commonwealth links.[20]

The final two chapters break the chronological structure to bring in an analysis of present and future trends. The first, referring to Britain as ‘the last European great power’ provides a welcome critique of the post-war ‘declinist’ discourse which has dominated so much of recent historiography, often closer to ideology than reality.[21] The final chapter differs from previous ones by offering what  comes across as an attempt to opt out of expressing a concrete position on the referendum campaign then in its final stages, by offering a quixotic call for a radically-reformed English-speaking federal EU. Simms emphasises the need for this to be created in a sudden ‘event’ in the manner of Bismarck, as opposed to the ever-closer-union ‘process’.[22] In fact, it is an argument that Simms has forwarded on several occasions, both before and after the publication of Britain’s Europe, most recently presenting Emmanuel Macron as the new Bismarck.[23] It is also a watered-down summary of the manifesto of the Project for Democratic Union think tank, though Simms omits any mention of the group and his control of its presidency.[24] Despite this, the call seems cavalier and in conflict with the rest of Britain’s Europe. Recognising that Britain would not likely join a fully-federal “superstate”, even an English-speaking one, he brushes aside concerns of his millennial-length British grand strategy thesis by insisting that relations would be friendly due to mutual self-interest.[25] This has not however stopped grandstanding during current Brexit negotiations. The idea that a majority of Europeans would vote to relinquish any remaining national sovereignty appears unlikely, especially given the massive opposition to issues such as the proposal to overcome the shortcomings of the Dublin regulations by way of EU-directed settlement of migrants to Hungary and other central/ Eastern European countries. The reader is left puzzled as to why Simms seemingly disowns his own arguments of thousand-year precedent for the future. A comparison with the strong federal nature of Germany also makes the reader wonder whether the apparently hyperdynamic British model is the best option.

The principal consistent weak point in Simms’ argument however, is surely the secondary role he gives to the British Empire. Though Simms mentions kinship links between members of the Medieval English elite and Europe, his primarily political perspective leaves little room for considering that most kinship links in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were imperial due to emigration.[26] There are also more strictly political shortcomings. The argument that expansion of the British Empire was due to a desire to strengthen Britain’s place in Europe overlooks eagerness for colonial plunder. The Scramble for Africa culminating at Fashoda, the acquisition of Cyprus, and the exchange of Helgoland for faraway Zanzibar brought along tense Anglo-French relations, Turkish alignment with the Central Powers and a strengthened Germany.[27] Likewise, Britain’s first twentieth-century alliance was with Japan, in part to bolster its interests in China against Germany and Russia. By writing British possessions in the Mediterranean off as imperial, Simms marginalises them in favour of Northern Europe, especially the ‘German Question’, thus missing the extent to which that sea became a ‘British lake’ up to the mid-twentieth century, causing Italian hesitation in entering both world wars.[28] The idea that British decolonisation was swift, clean and driven by a desire to keep up appearances in Europe also ignores the renewed enthusiasm for empire after 1945, the drawn-out nature of decolonisation in Kenya and the impact of US pressure.[29]

Though the abovementioned omissions are serious and provide a somewhat ironic warning over the dangers of excessive Eurocentrism, they should at the same time not mask the common ground between Simms and historians of empire such as Niall Ferguson and John Darwin. Both give Europe a central role, the former in the twentieth century in particular, while the latter goes as far as describing the American War of Independence as ‘almost a side-show’ next to the Anglophobic League of Armed Neutrality.[30] Also like Darwin, Simms’ methodology combines extensive secondary literature with plentiful primary sources (in his case mainly quotations from diplomats and politicians), and reaches a good compromise between breadth and depth, crucial to such a grand survey. One of the key strengths of the book is its treatment of the English Channel being as much a highway as a barrier. That Britain’s frontiers lie in the Low Countries is a fascinating concept. Though some of the quotations appear metaphorical, the events that Simms recounts from the Hundred Years’ war and Anglo-Dutch wars through to Napoleon and the twentieth century provide a strong argument against the idea that Britain was regarded as detached from Europe by contemporaries. [31] In many cases of critique, the reader is left wanting more, rather than change. Though Simms includes an incredible twenty pages of maps at the beginning showing Britain’s long-standing territorial links with Europe, he leaves many details out. Why certain features, such as the ‘British postal intercept station’ at Celle, were important is not fully explored.[32] More crucially though, an expanded section on what the union of the crowns with Hanover looked like on the ground would have helped overcome the book’s social-cultural shortcomings: the reader is left assuming that since Westminster did not include Hanoverian MPs as Dunkirk once did, the trans-channel state was analogous to Anglo-Scottish relations prior to the Act of Union (1707). Similarly, the ability of the reader to think of several examples that could have been included in Britain’s Europe, such as the Hanseatic League and Anglo-Portuguese alliance surely strengthens the thesis.

To conclude, Simms’ thesis is convincing, with the exception of his marginalisation of the British Empire. Even here however, the reviewer would place this factor as of equal importance to Europe as opposed to greater importance. Although Simms’ manifesto seems impractical, it is at least as interesting as it is unorthodox. Overall, Britain’s Europe provides a welcome revision of Britain’s place in relation to the continent, highlighting an obsession with cooperation to win conflict on the continent at a time when many apparently believe that Britain can leave Europe altogether.


[1] B. Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (London, 2016), p. xiii; Simms is particularly critical of Arthur Bryant for giving this narrative credibility, in his work such as Set in a Silver Sea.

[2] H. Kearney, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (Cambridge, 1989), p. 1; N. Davies, The Isles: A History (London, 1999).

[3] J. Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London, 2017), p. 305.

[4] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 1-3.

[5] Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 4.

[6] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 7-9.

[7] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 20-22.

[8] Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 30.

[9] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 31-32.

[10] Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 55.

[11] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 52-69.

[12] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 71-92.

[13] Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 114.

[14] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 98-110.

[15] Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 112.

[16] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 116-142.

[17] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 143-144.

[18] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 145-164; A. Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (London, 2014), pp. 173-217.

[19] Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 170.

[20] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 177-178.

[21] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 206-218; J. Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-war Britain (Harlow, 2000).

[22] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 219-227.

[23] B. Simms, ‘Towards a mighty union: how to create a democratic European superpower’, International Affairs, 88/ 1 (2012), pp. 49-62; B. Simms, ‘The ghosts of Europe’s past’, New York Times, 10 June 2013, p. 23; B. Simms, ‘The storm on fortress Europe: the continent’s old crises have not been resolved’, New Statesman, 24-30 November 2017, p. 29.

[24] Project for Democratic Union <>, accessed 19.4.2018.

[25] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. 235-236.

[26] W. S. Churchill, History of the English-Speaking Peoples: The Birth of Britain, Volume 1 (London, 1956), pp. vii-viii.

[27] T. Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa (London, 1991).

[28] C. Duggan, A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge, 1994); R. Holland, Blue-water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean Since 1800 (London, 2012).

[29] J. Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London, 2012).

[30] N. Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2004); Darwin, Unfinished Empire, p. 317.

[31] For instance, Stanley Baldwin’s assertion that Britain’s frontiers lay on the Rhine or Elbe, in Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 157, cannot be taken anywhere near literally, or as something that must be defended, rather they imply that Britain had an interest in Germany. Harold Macmillan took a similar approach to show solidarity with India against communist China by declaring that ‘Britain’s frontiers are on the Himalayas’ in 1965, Darwin, Unfinished Empire, p. 378. However Simms does point out that due to NATO commitments, ‘the United Kingdom’s eastern defence perimeter now effectively ran and runs along the eastern flank of the European Union’, Simms, Britain’s Europe, p. 197.

[32] Simms, Britain’s Europe, pp. xxvii.


Brotton, J., This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London, 2017).

Churchill, W. S., History of the English-Speaking Peoples: The Birth of Britain (London, 1956).

Darwin, J., Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London, 2012).

Davies, N., The Isles: A History (London, 1999).

Duggan, C., A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge, 1994).

Ferguson, N., Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2004).

Holland, R., Blue-water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean Since 1800 (London, 2012).

Kearney, H., The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (Cambridge, 1989).

Lee, C., This Sceptred Isle (London, 1998).

Simms, B., ‘Towards a mighty union: how to create a democratic European superpower’, International Affairs, 88/ 1 (2012), pp. 49-62.

Simms, B., ‘The ghosts of Europe’s past’, New York Times, 10 June 2013, p. 23.

Simms, B., Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (London, 2016).

Simms, B., ‘The storm on fortress Europe: the continent’s old crises have not been resolved’, New Statesman, 24-30 November 2017, pp. 24-29.

Tomlinson, J., The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-war Britain (Harlow, 2000).

Tooze, A., The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (London, 2014).

Pakenham, T., The Scramble for Africa (London, 1991).

Project for Democratic Union <>, accessed 19.4.2018.

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Italian Orientals

In this article David Robinson considers the discursive construction of Italian identity by British travellers in the early nineteenth century, through the lens of Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. David challenges Said’s construction of a purely East-West binary, showing how intra-European binaries were similarly constructed, through the combination of apparently objective ‘academic’ knowledge of Italy, and a more ‘imaginative’ construction of the peninsular through popular literature, including travel writing.


David Robinson

Author Biography 

David Robinson is a second-year, AHRC-M3C-funded PhD student supervised by the Department of History at the University of Nottingham. His thesis is entitled ‘Orientalism or Meridionism? Comparing Imperial and European Travel Writing in the Creation of British and European Identity’ and explores the British construction of Italy and India as cultural and geographical spaces contributing to British identity formation.

Italian Orientals

As John Urry notes, traveller’s observations are not innocent: ‘people gaze upon the world through a particular filter of ideas, skills, desires, and expectations, framed by social class, gender, nationality, age and education.’[1] Travel writing describes encounters with alterity which both reflect and reinforce the writer’s identity, while simultaneously constructing the identity of the ‘other’. As Carl Thompson explains, travel is an encounter with alterity, and travel writing is the record of the negotiation between self and other, and thus reflects the differences which constitute identity.[2]

The construction of Italian identity also mapped onto Britain’s internal ‘others’, for example, a licentious aristocracy, the bestial lower classes, and unsupervised women, in a period when the middle classes were vying for greater socio-political authority. As part of that contestation, they increasingly configured Britain’s national superiority as emerging from values with which they self-identified. For example, domestically centred, Protestant morality and purposeful industry. Italians were often portrayed in opposition to such values, as were the British aristocracy and lower classes. An Italy, discursively configured as inferior, was thus a mirror for British national, and middle class, superiority.

Orientalism-Constructing Knowledge of the Eastern ‘Other’

Edward Said described how the meaning of India, and ‘the East’ generally, was configured through discursive Western fantasies that portrayed ‘the East’ as exotic, uncivilised, pre-modern and dangerous. By implication, ‘the West’ becomes the rational, modern, and civilised corollary of the East. Orientalism, is far more than simple stereotyping, as Said put it, not ‘an airy European fantasy about the Orient but a created body of theory and practice.’[3] Said contended that Orientalism works in an ‘academic’ sense, with ‘objective’ knowledge of the East generated through scholarship in Oriental history and culture.

Bernard Cohn claimed that, in invading India, the British ‘invaded and conquered not only a territory but an epistemological space as well.’ The British created ‘forms of knowledge’ which ‘bound the vast social world that was India so it could be controlled.’[4] The British assumed the authority to investigate, observe, research, collate, categorise, write about and define what it was to be Indian, claiming ‘a kind of intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture’.[5] Eighteenth-century scholars of the Orient were sympathetic to, and genuinely interested in, ancient Indian culture, history, and religion. Later, in the early nineteenth century, the influence of Utilitarians, particularly James Mill and his 1817 hegemonic History of British India, led to a scathing view of Indian culture as degraded and backward, and of Indians as requiring wholesale re-education along British lines. As Ronald Inden points out, however, sympathy or otherwise is not the point:

a genuine critique of Orientalism does not revolve around the question of prejudice or bias, of the like or dislike of the peoples and cultures of Asia […] scholars whose attitudes seem at polar opposites do not disagree here in any major way about the facts of Indian history, facts which constitute India as a veritable glass-house of vulnerability, forever destined for conquest by outsiders.[6]

Where Mill and the Utilitarians were contemptuous, sympathetic Orientalist scholars tended to represent the East as a ‘civilisation of dreams’, yet both are constructed fantasies.[7]

A key difference then, one which differentiates between Orientalism and simple ‘othering’, is that the body of knowledge Orientalism creates has the appearance of objectivity and authenticity. Knowledge produced by scholars has the apparent ability to objectively construct the reality of the East, and, therefore, supposedly represent the East more accurately than can the inhabitants themselves. Orientalism is a discourse imposed from the outside, one which erases difference between individuals and denies those described the opportunity to respond or refute the construction. Orientalism translates into real power, given that the body of knowledge produced for eighteenth and nineteenth-century colonisers justified and ‘enabled the Orientalist and his countrymen to gain trade concessions, conquer, colonise, rule, and punish in the East.’[8]

Said draws on Foucault and the relationship between knowledge and power in developing these ideas:

without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage-and even produce-the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.[9]

Flaubert’s description of an Egyptian courtesan for example, was influential onWestern ‘understanding’ of Oriental women.[10] Flaubert spoke for the woman, offering no opportunity for her to speak for herself and no recourse to dispute what Flaubert said about her and, by extension, about all Eastern women. Following Foucault, Said shows how such knowledge about the East is produced within an asymmetric power relationship, where the observed and described have no ability to refute, respond or write back. For Said, the asymmetric power balance between the described and the describer in Flaubert’s account, reinforced through actual and metaphorical sexual conquest, ‘fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled.’[11]

In parallel with ‘academic’ knowledge about the East, Said describes an ‘imaginative’ form of Orientalism, whereby writers in various genres have a preconceived notion of an Eastern mind-set, an Eastern ‘way of being’:

Poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and Imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on.[12]

An on-going exchange between ‘the academic and the more or less imaginative meaning of Orientalism’ extends hegemonic knowledge of the East throughout Western culture. Here Said draws on Gramsci’s distinction between the coercive and consenting institutions of political and civil society respectively, whereby ‘culture […] is to be found operating within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent’.[13] Even apparently innocent portrayals of the East suggest a strange and exotic, even dangerous place. Take for example, the dispute over the 1993 Disney release, Aladdin, and the lyrics to the opening song:

Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where it’s flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

Despite Arab-American protests, the word ‘barbaric’ was retained, as was a scene depicting the threatened amputation of Princess Jasmine’s hand for stealing an apple for a hungry child.[14] Orientalising depictions of the East are not, Said claimed, simply historical artefacts but ongoing constructs. Nor are they necessarily overtly political or deliberately racially offensive, as this children’s film demonstrates.

The interchange between the academic and ‘imaginative’ forms of Orientalism combine in ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’[15] This is Orientalism as a ‘corporate institution’ which takes advantage of a helpless and inferior East, and justifies, even valorises, authorises and facilitates the colonial activities of European nations. Of course, Orientalism configures not only the East, but also ‘helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’.[16] Where the East is irrational, pre-modern and inferior, the West is the opposite.

Said applied Orientalism exclusively to a discursive construction of an East-West binary, and perhaps the broadest criticism of his work is that he constructs the West as inherently and ubiquitously racist and imperialist. Said’s work has subsequently attracted both adoration and vitriol in equal measures. Other scholars have applied Orientalism to, for example, the Western construction of ancient Greece as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, as a European ‘myth of origins’. Anna Carastathis argues ‘that the function of Hellenism in constituting both the fantasy of Europe and Western hegemony has an Orientalist structure.’[17] Carastathis argues that Western Europe has denied Greece a real identity and its own heritage, ‘in fantasies of white supremacy’ which simultaneously places ancient Greece as the origin of Western civilisation and modern Greece as Western Europe’s ‘other’.[18]

British travellers to Italy similarly separated modern Italy from its own classical past. The British appropriated this past to associate themselves as the heirs to classical civilisation. As the periodical writer Francis Jeffrey said in the early nineteenth century, ‘an Englishman bears a much greater resemblance to a Roman, than an Italian of the present day.’[19] Saree Makdisi has argued that around the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no essential or stable Western, nor British, or even English identity. Instead, he argues, these things were in the making, and before the British could assert any Occidental identity, they had first to rid themselves of their own internal ‘orientals’. Makdisi shows how racialised language was aimed at groups of white indigenous British people such as the ‘London Arabs’, how the lower orders were depicted as ‘bestial’, and the aristocracy categorised as vain, effeminate and sexually immoral. Orientalist language was used by groups as diverse as the nascent middle classes, religious Evangelicals and political radicals.[20] Similarly, Indira Ghose points out that Utilitarian and Orientalist constructions of India are both discourses of colonial domination, and that disagreement between the two factions can be mapped onto domestic disputes between the traditional aristocracy and the reform-minded middle classes.[21]

In what follows, I shall demonstrate how nineteenth-century British travellers similarly used an Orientalist configuration of supposedly objective ‘academic’ history, and ‘imaginative’ Gothic and Romantic literature and travel writing, to identify Italy and Italians as inherently irrational, superstitious, pre-modern, perpetually liable to foreign oppression, and thus inferior to a modern, rational, and constitutional Britain. Italians were, therefore, configured with many of the characteristics also imposed on Indians. Finally, I will discuss the specific example of the portrayal of Italian women and domesticity by British travellers. Such portrayals explained in an ‘objective’ way, why Britain was inherently  a more civilised and advanced nation, but also mapped on to socio-political debate back home; in this case, a strategy to align a superior British identity with the growing socio-political authority of the British middle classes.

Constructing Knowledge of Italy 

Joseph Luzzi opens his account of Italian Romanticism with a description of a modern Alitalia advert, telling the tourist to ‘fire their therapist…do something monumental…give in to temptation’. In doing so, the Italian national airline ‘draws on a myth, formed by writers in the early nineteenth century, of Italy as a premodern, sensual, and unreflective (hence, analyst-free) oasis.’[22] Such descriptions represent a ‘habit of thinking about Italy as an eminently premodern corpus of cultural traditions, a habit that emerged in the Romantic literary movements of Europe in the early nineteenth century.’[23]

The idea of Italy as a Romantic literary construct in the minds of British (and German, Swiss, French etc.) travellers is well established.[24] As David Laven observes, ‘by the late 1810s British engagement with Italy had come to be shaped heavily by a handful of Romantic poets and writers.’[25] The writers to whom Laven refers however, (Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, John Keats, Germaine de Staёl, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for example) were themselves informed by what Walchester calls, ‘a complex chain of reference’ which included: ‘eighteenth-century accounts, which draw on Italian Renaissance poetry, which in turn refers to Classical descriptions of Italy.’[26] For example, the work of popular Gothic novelists such as Anne Radcliffe, itself informed by descriptions of Italy by historians and eighteenth-century travel writers, was instrumental for later Romantic authors and their tales of Italian rape, incest, and murder.[27] In turn, these views of Italy became hegemonic in the minds of travellers to Italy and were reflected in their travel writing.

Romantic literature was also ‘intimately linked’ to, and informed by, Italian history and politics.[28] Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) and William Roscoe’s Lives of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1795) stimulated public interest in classical and medieval Renaissance Italy, as did the Genevan historian Sismondi’s Histoire des Republiques Italiennes au Moyen Age (1809-18). Slightly later British historians such as Henry Hallam and George Percival recycled much of this earlier work in their own accounts of Italy, View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages (1818) and the two-volume History of Italy (1825) respectively.[29] Italy was ubiquitously portrayed as having slumped into ‘decadence and defeat’ since its days of glory.[30] Such views were also informed by earlier historical views of Italy. Inspired by national pride, jealousy of superior Italian commerce and diplomacy, and as a reaction to Catholic Inquisitional persecution of Protestants, sixteenth and seventeenth-century British travellers often described Italians as lascivious, corrupt, vicious, treacherous and deceitful. [31] In 1570, Roger Ascham, a poet, writer, Tudor Royal tutor, and secretary to the Privy Council declared that in nine days in Italy, he witnessed more sin than in nine years in London.[32] Contemporary continental politics also played its part in Italy’s portrayal, for example in Napoleonic apologist Count Daru’s condemnatory eight-volume account of Venice, Histoire de la République de Venise (Paris, Didot, 1819). For Daru, Venice’s moral collapse justified Napoleonic conquest. Whether accurate or not, such accounts were influential on the creation of semi-historical Romantic productions.[33] Between 1815 and 1840, episodes of Italian history inspired semi-fictional creations by Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Bulwer Lytton, Robert Browning, Mary Mitford, Walter Landor, and Felicia Hemans. In reverse, a literary construction of Italy influenced academic writing on Italy, as in the case of George Percival, whose historical account ‘reads rather like a series of romantic tales than a connected historical study.’[34]

Unsurprisingly, the themes which garnered most attention and came to form the British view of Italy in the first half of the nineteenth century, were

the violence and unrestraint of passion in Italy, with all the gruesome horrors and miseries resulting from it…the exciting, almost incredible adventures of men of extraordinary courage and personality…the struggle for freedom of peoples subjected to tyrannous rulers.[35]

A slew of plays and novels were predicated on themes of Italian revenge and delight in torture, murder, and rape. Emerging from such work, was a view of Italians as passionate and potentially talented but irrational, violent, jealous, and unable to control their emotions and energy or direct them to positive moral, political, or civic ends. The popular novelist Anne Manning wrote in her own account of Italy that, historically, ‘the energy and violence which marked their national character was often directed to evil purposes by such dark and vindictive passions.’[36] Following a popular belief, one also held regarding Africa and the East, Manning attributed some of the Italian temperament to the hotter Italian climate, producing ‘emotions of hatred and jealously which in our cooler climate occasionally ruffle our bosom, and are mastered by steady principle and placid temperament.’[37] In a later account of Italy, and in a slightly different vein, the Countess Blessington also discussed the climate in Rome, and praised young Englishmen for (apparently) resisting the ‘temptations of this luxurious capital…the delicious habits of the dolce far’ niente [carefree idleness]…[to] which the climate disposes people’.[38] Blessington published several accounts of life in London and travel in Europe, where she befriended Byron, and was well disposed towards Italians, praising the men for their particular skills in music, their gallantry, and their talent for seductive amour. By contrast, she made the (dubious) observation that young Englishmen were studious and rational, and used their Italian experience to gain knowledge and skills to aid a ‘future career of utility.’[39] Italian women were delightful, although with a ‘naivete resembling that of children.’[40] Different travel accounts thus ‘objectively’ observed that the Italian climate produced passion in its people, which could turn alternatively towards sensual luxury, childish indulgence, or jealous and violent anger, whereas northern climates produced a rational, sober, and purposefully industrious character.

As Inden observed regarding India, the point here is not the extent to which travellers criticise, praise, or sympathise with Italians, but how Italy is configured as naturally and inherently a certain way, through the ‘objective’ observation of evidence. Italian ‘nature’ explained both their past triumphs and present fallen state, and why Britain had surpassed Italy morally, politically, civically, and economically. Although critical of the outcomes of Italian ‘nature’, Manning expressed pity for Italian victims of inherent disadvantages, those of ‘prevailing example, the influence of climate, and the imperfect moral restraint of […] [Catholic] religion.’[41] Describing the events between 1797 and the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Manning depicts Italy as an impotent trophy to be tossed between the French and the Austrians. Manning’s Italians, like Blessington’s, are somewhat naïve and infantile, unaware of their own self-interest, at once looking to Napoleon as a patriarchal ‘guardian angel’, and complacently content to be rid of him when once again under the Austrian yoke.[42] Manning conceded that some Italians had been awoken to their lack of freedom but implies that Italian religion, prejudice and general nature meant that achieving freedom was likely to be an uphill struggle.[43] History and the observations of travellers thus empirically demonstrated the natural inferiority and irrationality of Italians, and such views were supported and promulgated through popular fiction and travel literature.

Manning mentions the negative influence of the Catholic religion on Italy, and this was a regular feature of travel discourse. Most travellers were at least interested, often fascinated, by Catholic rituals. After English Catholic emancipation in 1829, there was a British revival of Catholicism and many more positive and balanced accounts of the Italian church.[44] For many however, and particularly in earlier accounts, Catholicism was suffused with superstition and ritual, intimately linked to Italian social and political weakness. The painter, poet, writer, journalist and friend to influential Romantics such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, William Hazlitt’s 1826 travel account is typically scathing, particularly regarding the religion’s use of confession ‘to get rid at once of all moral obligation, of all self-control and self-respect, by the proxy of maudlin superstition.’ Hazlitt concludes that Catholicism, ‘suits the pride and weakness of man’s intellect, the indolence of his will, the cowardliness of his fears, the vanity of his hopes.’[45] The nature of Catholicism was woven into knowledge formation about Italy, a fundamental part of the reason why Italians lacked purpose, industry, and political freedom. Maria Graham’s 1820 account of the campagna east of Rome sets out to describe the present-day ‘peasants of the hills’ and

their actual manners as may enable others to form a judgement of their moral and political condition and to account for some of those irregularities which we do not easily imagine to be consistent with the civilised state of Europe, but which for centuries have existed in the patrimony of the church.[46]

Graham, the author of two popular and widely-reviewed travel accounts of India and the wife of a military officer, associated Catholicism with superstition, noting ‘how closely the Roman church has followed the Pagan ceremonies in her festivals.’[47] Graham implies that Catholicism was at odds with free-thinking rationalism, and with fair, just and effective government. Graham suggests that Catholicism’s preference for show over substance and its encouragement of idolatry, inculcated submission in Italian people, hindered their ability to think for themselves or engage with political life, and failed to develop in them, a strong and proper work ethic. Graham described the Italian

state of moral lethargy [which] produces great indifference as to public interest, and renders them acquiescent under any government, so long as they remain in peace, and can sit every man under his own vine and his own fig tree.[48]

This was opposite to the middle-class sentiments of hard-working ambition and political inclusion promoted back home.

The glory of Italy’s past only served to heighten the sense of modern-day decline and to emphasise Italy’s inability to recapture its former heights. Sismondi’s contrast between Italy’s potential which ‘remained in the fragments of the broken colossus’ and the failure of modern Italians to realise the possibilities, added to their moribund image in the eyes of the British.[49] This is the sense that is captured by French novelist Madame de Staёl’s enormously influential 1807 Corinne, ou l’Italie, a novel based on de Stael’s own Italian journey and widely read in Britain. De Staёl describes an Italy of great potential but populated by effeminate men lacking purpose or political drive. As de Staёl’s British protagonist Oswald considers, ‘the Italians are more remarkable for what they have been, and might be, than for what they are.’[50] The influence of Corinne was such that ‘perhaps more than any other work of its time, it provided a paradigmatic interpretation of Italian society, politics, and character’, although as Robert Casillo is quick to point out, ‘Staël often follows in the path of seventeenth and eighteenth-century travel writers whose attitudes and judgments she shares’.[51] For many travellers, Corinne exemplified British superiority over Italy. As Francis Jeffrey suggested in the Edinburgh Review, ‘it is Great Britain and Italy, the extremes of civilised Europe, that are personified and contrasted in the hero and heroine of this romantic tale’.[52] It is also notable that Jeffrey configures Britain as male against a female Italy. As Jeffrey also points out, ‘what a difference between the ancient Romans and the modern Italians.’[53]

For many then, modern Italy was ‘a land of barbarians’, in contrast to its glorious Greco-Roman and Renaissance past.[54] This in no way detracted from Italy’s popularity as a travel destination. Indeed, the poet and travel writer Mary Shelley compared the transit of English travellers to Italy with that of rats crossing a stream over the bodies of their drowned companions: ‘we fly to Italy; we eat the lotus; we cannot tear ourselves away’.[55] Shelley draws a distinction between residents of Italy like herself, better informed and sensitive to the ‘real’ Italy, and the hordes of ‘rats’ scurrying across the Channel, ‘guidebook in hand’.[56]  Many residents however, simply ignored Italians or reduced them to stereotypes.[57] The poet Walter Savage Landor, resident in Florence from 1821, claimed he took ‘no interest whatsoever in the affairs of Italians: I visit none of them: I admit none of them within my doors.’[58] Percy Shelley, sympathetic to Italian independence, wrote of Venice in a letter of 1818, that it was ’a wonderfully fine city’, yet of the ‘avarice, cowardice, superstition, passionless lust’ of the people.[59] Separating the city from its modern context, Shelley reveals the historical and literary influences on his opinion, describing palaces with dungeons ‘where these scoundrels used to torment their victims…where the sufferers were roasted to death…where the prisoners were confined sometimes halfway up to their middle in stinking water.’[60] The juxtaposition of the beauty and luxury of the palace with the horror and degradation of the dungeon became a common theme recycled from historical and literary accounts. The historian George Perceval famously wrote of Venice that, ‘her prisons and her palaces were contiguous’, describing the ambivalence of ‘the double nature of Venice, their extremes of misery and joy’. Such views were reinforced by the popular symbolism of the Bridge of Sighs, from which prisoners had their last glimpse of Venice whilst crossing from the Doge’s palace to the prison. Perceval also notes the debt owed to Byron as ‘one of the key-stones of the arch’ in the configuration of a romanticised Italy, yet thought that Byron paid too little attention to ‘all her silent crimes’.[61] Bryon had, however, already written two historical tragedies in The Two Foscari and Marino Faliero, tales which included Italian intrigue, murder, revenge, torture, libel, and political corruption. A year after his letter above, Shelley published The Cenci, an ‘historicised and Gothic vision of Italy’,  in a story of incest and parricide based on an apparently true story from Ludivico Antonio Muratori’s 1749 Annali d’Italia.[62] Shelley was aware of the commercial potential of the work, telling his publisher that it was ‘written for the multitude’.[63] His private correspondence above, however, shows the degree to which historical accounts of Venice, such as Count Daru’s, intermingled with popular Gothic fantasy in Shelley’s own imagining of Italy.

In the same letter, Shelley reveals another popular trope in constructions of Italy: their inability to contest foreign oppression or their own despotic rulers. Shelley writes of Venice, ‘which was once a tyrant, is now the next worst thing, a slave; for in fact it ceased to be free or worth our regret as a nation from the moment that the oligarchy usurped the rights of the people.’[64] Italy was a slave to its own nature as much as to foreign oppression. The degraded aspects of Italian character, which had taken them from classical and Renaissance triumph to domestic despotic oppression, now left them unable to regain their independence in the face of foreign domination. Disparagement of Italian character was by no means restricted to Venice, even when Italians did attempt to throw off the Austrian yoke. The 1821 Neapolitan failed uprising served only to ‘place in a clearer point of view the cowardice, versatility, profligacy and total want of character of the Neapolitan nation…it would be a waste of words to say more of them.’[65] Lord Normanby, a long-term Italian resident, commenting on the failure of the Piedmont uprising of the same year wrote, ‘it grieves me to be compelled to treat in a mingled vein of ridicule, these attempts to obtain rational liberty.’ Normanby concludes that the Italians deserved a ‘point of view more ludicrous than either hateful or demanding sympathy.’[66] The general tenor of such comments perhaps reflected British guilt and self-justification, for ignoring Italian independence in favour of a strategic need for European stability in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The British acquiesced to Austrian rule in Italy, partly over fears for the security of their Indian territories.[67] Subsequent failures of Italian uprisings only showed they had been right in their judgement; there had been ‘no confidence that the Italians could be trusted with their own destiny’ and ‘the Italians seemed unable either to re-enact their past or to seize the promise of their future.’[68] Italy was not colonised by the British, but it was largely subjugated to foreign domination, and its status as such played a part in maintaining Britain’s stability as a colonising power elsewhere. Orientalist constructions of Italy as naturally submissive to oppression thus suited a broader British agenda and justified Italy’s continued subjugation.

Italian resident Mary Shelley, anonymously reviewing Lord Normanby’s account of Italy, takes a slightly more sympathetic view but one which still configures Italy as intrinsically unsuited to resistance. Shelley suggests that Italy lacked, not the desire for freedom, but the organisational drive to effect it. The rich and poor of the cities cared more for their wealth and security respectively than to risk them in rebellion; the senior academic community were too naturally timid to resist; their younger students lacked any sense of higher moral purpose; the peasantry of the countryside had no thought of political liberty at all.[69] Yet still, Shelley believed emancipation would eventually come because Italy was such a repository of natural talent, although not of the kind best suited to the type of purposeful activity required to achieve freedom. Their talents were of a different stripe, ‘untaught courtesy, their love of the fine arts, the poetry with which their sunny sky endows them’.  Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Shelley suggests this ‘native genius’ was the ‘foundation stone…of Italian liberty…though no superstructure is thereto added’.[70] Natural Italian artistic genius was both their blessing and their hindrance to freedom in an Italy configured as a pre-modern Romantic fantasy.

Prior to Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Italy was largely unavailable to most British travellers and therefore for most of the first post-Napoleonic travellers, unknown through personal experience. Presumably this served to heighten the view of Italy discursively created through many of the historical and literary texts discussed above, the view of Italy most commonly available. Regardless, as Laven concludes, British views of Italy in the first half of the nineteenth century were, ‘the product of a dialogue, which was not only transnational, but shaped by the relationships between different creative arts and academic disciplines.[71] (My emphasis). As this last point makes clear, the discursive configuration of Italy and Italians in the eyes of the British has obvious parallels with Orientalism, as a body of apparently objective knowledge formed through the interchange of academic and imaginative ideas. As Cavaliero observes, the ‘attitudes that the younger generation of British Romantic poets took towards Italy…were reflected in the notions of other writers and through them of politicians.’[72] The concept of Italy with which travellers arrived in the country was one informed by historians, Gothic and Romantic writers, and previous travellers. This is the construction of Italy evident in many of the travel accounts of the early nineteenth century.

In the following section, I will discuss how British travellers utilised ‘Orientalised’ Italy to describe Italian domestic formations, comparing them negatively to their British counterparts. In doing so, British travellers implied the superiority of Britain as a nation. Such observations, however, also intersected with ideas emerging back home: that the success of the nation was intrinsically linked to domestic formations with specifically middle-class characteristics, during a period when that class agitated for a greater share of socio-political authority. As we will see, however, some travellers used such observations to contest the constraining and oppressive nature of middle-class British domesticity.

The Discourse of Domesticity

The importance attributed by British travellers to appropriate domestic arrangements reflects not just national superiority, but a particular view of domesticity advanced by the middle-classes; the importance of separating the roles of men and women into public and private spheres. Davidoff and Hall have detailed the importance of the ‘separate spheres’ arrangement as key to the growing authority of the middle-classes between 1780 and 1840. The role of women as the moral centre of the middle-class household, the educator and nurturer of children, was portrayed as essential to the general flourishing of the nation. Sons were brought up to learn and respect their public, civic and political responsibilities, and daughters to understand their importance in providing a similarly nurturing home. Kay Boardman notes that, ‘for middle-class Victorians, the home and the management of it was central to their perceptions of themselves as a social group’ in a ‘complex network of class allegiance.’[73] As Davidoff and Hall point out, through the example of their domestic arrangements, the middle-classes, ‘placed themselves in opposition to an indolent and dissolute aristocracy, and a potentially subversive working class’.[74] By doing so, they staked a claim for greater socio-political authority. As discussed above, this is consistent with Makdisi’s observations regarding the identification and marginalisation of Britain’s internal ‘others’ as part of the process of configuring ‘Occidental’ British identity. As Rattansi puts it,

the processes which led to the formation of Western modernity also involved an inferiorisation and government, or regulation and disciplining of internal Others such as women, children and the rapidly growing urban working class. Thus, ‘internal’ questions of the forms of incorporation of these subalterns into the national culture and polity became conflated with and superimposed onto issues involving the forms in which the ‘natives’ of the colonies were to be discursively comprehended and ruled.[75]

Both Rattansi and Makdisi refer to a connection between the Eastern and domestic ‘other’, however, as I will discuss, the same strategy can be seen, when employing the Italian ‘other’.

Returning to the travel writer and novelist Anne Manning, Italian weakness was as much moral, domestic, and civic as it was military. Although critical of French excess, Manning concedes the advantage conferred by the many French improvements made to Italian institutions, lamenting that the Austrians had not maintained such developments, and that Italians had barely missed them once absent.[76] For example, Manning describes the French introduction of ‘liberal education’ to combat the ‘ignorance and bigotry of most of the Italian ladies’, in institutions run by French women in the absence of suitable Italians. A ‘liberal education’ was essentially domestic instruction, vital to the development of the ‘character and disposition of their sons.’ [77] It was the introduction of superior Northern European domestic practices that gave Manning some hope that the younger generation of Italians might fight for the freedom their parents were incapable of achieving, given the ignorance, bigotry, superstition and fatalistic submission of the latter.[78]

In an account which Lord Normanby claimed was based on personal experience and observation, he describes a doomed marriage between a high-ranking young Englishwomen and an Italian Count. In doing so he implied the superiority of English domestic relationships and the inferiority of their Italian counterparts.  Normanby suggested that Italians had no sense of national pride or spirit and no concept of civic duty, due to their foreign masters forbidding involvement in politics. Consequently, ‘forbidden to dream of ambition, the Italian devotes himself to love.’[79] This outlet ‘for all their enthusiasm’ inevitably led to the degrading spectacle of Italian domesticity. Matilda, the poor English unfortunate whose head is turned by the Italian natural talent for seduction, is forced to accept the humiliation of her new husband’s infidelities. Worse, she is obliged to consent to a cavalier servente, or male companion, when her husband characteristically tires of her company and becomes inattentive. When Matilda complains that she is being sexually harassed by the cavalier servente, her husband laughs it off, suggesting this is her affair and not his, and a silly,excessive English over-reaction.[80] Italian domestic arrangements are portrayed as both a symptom and the cause of Italy’s foreign domination. Italian domesticity failed to produce and nurture sons with national and civic pride who valued, and would fight for, political freedom. Their inability, however, to engage in political and civic life was what led to such domestic arrangements in the first place. The sexually and morally licentious view of aristocratic domesticity clearly maps onto a similar view back in Britain. Lord Normanby’s support for middle-class domesticity might appear an anomaly, coming as he did from an aristocratic lineage. Although elected as Tory MP for Scarborough in 1818, Normanby spoke up for Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform. Displeasing his family with these liberal views, Normanby resigned in 1820.  Returning to parliament, helater crossed the floor and became a prominent Whig politician.[81] Normanby’s apparent support for Whiggish middle-class domesticity in his writing perhaps reflects his political conflict with his aristocratic Tory family.

In reviewing Normanby, Mary Shelley agreed with some of his general observations regarding Italy, but utilised them to critique English domesticity in a different way. Shelley was ‘far from advocating the Italian conjugal system, which puts the axe to domestic happiness, and deeply embitters the childhood of the offspring of the divided parents’, but pointed out that an Italian woman would be equally unhappy in an English marriage.[82] Shelley asks how an Italian woman would fare with

the toils and dullness of an English home…her snug, but monotonous fireside, her sentry-box of a house…the necessity of forever wearing that thick and ample veil of propriety which we throw over every act and word.[83]

To English women, social constraint was ‘the music, the accompaniment by which they regulate their steps until they cannot walk without it; and the veil before spoken of is as necessary to their sense of decency as their very habiliments.’[84] The unconventional Shelleys had left England under a fair degree of social and financial disapprobation, and Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, would no doubt have been particularly sensitive to the strictures of English social and domestic conventions. Shelley concludes by suggesting that Matilda, the unfortunate victim of Italian domesticity, had been offered far more freedom than would have been possible in England, yet ‘even the excess of freedom does not permit her the exact liberty she wants.’[85] Shelley implies that English women were as entrapped by domesticity as Italians were by despotism. Matilda is so conditioned by domestic restraint, she does not know how to react to relative freedom.

Mary Shelley’s critique is reminiscent of de Staёl’s in Corinne. The aristocratic Oswald must decide between marriage to the talented and vivacious Italian Corinne, and a conventional and demur Englishwoman. Oswald’s friend, Mr Edgarmond, whilst acknowledging Corinne’s beauty and talent, exclaims ‘none but English wives will do for England…of what use would she be in a house?’. He continues,

now the house is everything with us, you know, at least to our wives. Can you fancy your lovely Italian remaining quietly at home, while fox-hunts or debates took you abroad? The domestic worth of our women you will never find elsewhere…where men lead active lives, the women should bloom in the shade.[86]

De Staёl has been interpreted here as sympathising with the repression of English women  under English domestic arrangements, as Shelley appears to be doing. Indeed, in his review of Corinne, Francis Jeffrey acknowledges the accuracy with which de Staёl portrays ‘the almost total separation of the male from the female part of society’.[87] Jeffrey suggests however, the negative aspects of this have been exaggerated, that it is a ‘necessary consequence’ of a superior and politically engaged nation.’ Jeffrey draws attention to what he describes as de Staёl’s portrayal of the superiority of English men, derived from, ‘having some object in active life, and some concern in the government of their country.’[88] Indeed, given her positive comments regarding the English political and diplomatic landscape generally, it was unlikely that de Staёl ‘disputed Jeffrey’s broad conclusions’.[89]

Here, Shelley and de Staёl offer examples of what Kathryn Walchester describes as a trope among female travellers, whereby ‘women writers both manipulate the discourse of the domestic sphere and transgress its boundaries to offer various perspectives on European politics.’[90] In doing so, however, both writers contribute to a totalising configuration of Italian domestic life, one which suggests that Italian domestic arrangements are intimately linked to their lack of political freedom. ‘Effeminate’ and ‘licentious’ men are unable to exercise appropriate control over their households and, consequently, given freedom from domestic duties, Italian women fail to raise children who recognise their civic, political, and social responsibilities.  The reviewer Jeffrey seems to suggest that the suppression of women’s expression and individuality within British domesticity is a necessary and justifiable consequence, a noble sacrifice that superior English women make for the greater national good. No wonder then, that whatever de Staёl or Shelley’s intentions, even many nineteenth-century women ‘argue in essays or fictions that cultural differences in female conduct represented not legitimate differences of convention but deviations from a single real standard: that of British Protestant domesticity’.[91]

Clearly then, the comparison between Italian and British domesticity configured Britain as the superior nation. Not only was British domesticity morally superior, but emerging from it was the sense of social and political responsibility that had facilitated Britain’s rise as a free and stable nation at home, and a world power abroad. Thus gender difference was co-constitutive with a discourse of middle-class superiority, one transferable to claims of national superiority. In a famous article on women travellers, Elizabeth Rigby, later to become Lady Eastlake, a writer for the influential and conservative Quarterly Review, compared English women with their foreign counterparts. Rigby noted that, ‘the foreign lady can in no way be measured against her’ because of the Englishwoman’s ‘very habits of order and regularity which make her domestic’.[92] English superiority was attributable ‘to nothing less than the domesticity of the English character’.[93] Mary Poovey points out that the portrayal of middle-class women, from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, moved from emotionally and sexually unstable, to domestic angel, the nation’s ‘moral hope and spiritual guide’.[94] Such portrayals demonstrate an inherently patriarchal view of women as unstable and dangerous, unless properly supervised within a male-controlled domestic environment such as that promoted by the middle-classes. For the lower classes, ‘separate sphere’ domesticity was effectively an impossibility, given the economic requirement for women to work. They were entrapped by a circular argument which stated that their lower-class deficiencies were caused by their lack of domestic qualities, yet their economic status prevented them from such domesticity in the first place. By the 1860s, one anonymous author noted that

It seems a bold statement to make, but it is put forth under a deep conviction of its reality and truthfulness, that the want of domesticity among women – of the working classes especially – is a great source of most of the ‘social evils’ which are as a plague spot upon the nation at the present time.[95]


Travellers, novelists, poets, and academics in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries used a combination of ‘objective’ academic knowledge and ‘imaginative’ cultural representations of Italy to configure Italy as ‘other’ and Britain as its superior corollary. Such strategies have clear parallels with Edward Said’s Orientalism and suggest that the discourse which Said identified has far wider applications than as purely an imperialist East-West binary. Travel literature is a useful genre to consider in this respect, intersecting as it does, the objectively observed ‘academic’ and ‘imaginative’ forms of Orientalism.

Orientalising descriptions of Italian domesticity were superimposed onto questions of class and gender back home. Stoler and Cooper point out that to properly understand the role which Orientalism plays in the construction of the foreign and domestic ‘other’, ‘metropole and colony’ must be seen within ‘a single analytical field’.[96] As I have identified, gender, class, national superiority, and configurations of British and Italian identity can also be seen in the same co-constituting analytical frame. As Cohn identified as regards India, it seems that the British also invade an ‘epistemological space’ in Italy, to configure superior British ‘identity’ as essentially Protestant, male and middle-class. Although neither ‘Eastern’, nor a formal colony, ‘knowledge’ of Italy played a part in Britain’s self-identification as an Imperial power.[97]


[1] J. Urry, The Tourist Gaze 3.0 (London, 2011), pp. 1-2.

[2] C. Thompson, Travel Writing (Abingdon, 2011), pp. 10-11.

[3] E. Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), p. 14.

[4] B. Cohn, ‘Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge’, in A. Howe (Ed.), The New Imperial Histories Reader (Oxford, 2010), pp. 117-124, 118.

[5] Said, Orientalism, p. 27.

[6] R. Inden, ‘Orientalist Constructions of India’, Modern Asian Studies, 20 (1986), pp. 401-46, 409-10.

[7] Inden, Orientalist Constructions, p. 408.

[8] Inden, Orientalist Constructions, p. 408.

[9] Said, Orientalism, p. 11.

[10] Said, Orientalism, p. 14.

[11] Said, Orientalism, p. 14.

[12] Said, Orientalism, pp. 10-11.

[13] Said, Orientalism, p. 15.

[14] Los Angeles Times, 10th July 1993. (Accessed 4/10/17).

[15] Said, Orientalism, p. 11.

[16] Said, Orientalism, pp. 9-10.

[17] A. Carastathis, ‘Is Hellenism an Orientalism? Reflections on the Boundaries of

“Europe” in an Age of Austerity’, Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, 10 (2014), pp. 2-17, 2.

[18] Carastathis, ‘Is Hellenism an Orientalism?’, pp. 4-5.

[19] F. Jeffrey, ‘Review of “Corinne, ou l’Italie.”’, Edinburgh Review, 11 (1807), pp. 183-95, 194.

[20] S. Makdisi, Making England Western (Chicago, IL., 2014).

[21] I. Ghose, Women Travellers in Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze (Delhi, 1998), pp. 22-5.

[22] J. Luzzi, Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (London, 2008), p. 1.

[23] Luzzi, Romantic Europe, p, 52.

[24] For example, see the seminal, C. P. Brand, Italy and the English Romantics: The Italianate Fashion in Early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1957); C. Hornsby (Ed.), The Impact of Italy: The Grand Tour and Beyond (London, 2000); L. M. Crisafulli (Ed.), Imagining Italy, Literary Itineraries in British Romanticism (Bologna, 2002); L. Bandiera & Saglia, D., (Eds.), British Romanticism and Italian Literature. Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting (Amsterdam, 2005); J. Stabler, The Artistry of Exile, (Oxford, 2013); D. Laven, ‘The British Idea of Italy in the Age of Turner’, in D. B. Brown (Ed.), J. M. W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, (Tate Research Publication, London, 2015). ,(Accessed 16/04/2017).

[25] Laven, British Idea of Italy

[26] K. Walchester, Our Own Fair Italy (Bern, 2007), p. 39.

[27] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[28] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. x.

[29] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 187.

[30] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[31] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 1.

[32] R. Ascham, The English Works of Roger Ascham (London, 1815), p. 248. ‘Roger Ascham’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Accessed: 06/10/17).

[33] D. Laven, ‘Lord Byron, Count Daru, and Anglophone Myths of Venice in the Nineteenth Century’, MDCCC, 1 (2012), pp. 5-32, 12.

[34] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 187.

[35] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 189.

[36] A. Manning, Stories from the History of Italy (London, 1831), p. 59.

[37] Manning, History, p. 59.

[38] M. Gardiner, Countess of Blessington, The Idler in Italy, Vol. ii (London, 1839), p. 213.

[39] Blessington, Idler, p. 213.

[40] Blessington, Idler, p. 214.

[41] Manning, History, p. 59.

[42] Manning, History, pp. 351-9.

[43] Manning, History, pp. 358-9.

[44] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 215.

[45] W. Hazlitt, Notes of a Journey (London, 1826), p. 246.

[46] M. Graham, Three Months Passed in the Mountain’s East of Rome (London, 1820), pp. iv-v.

[47] Graham, Three Months, p. 131.

[48] Graham, Three Months, p. 60.

[49] J. C. L de Sismondi, History of the Italian Republics (London, 1832), p. 3.

[50] Mdm. de Staёl, Corinne; or Italy (London, 1834), p. 16.

[51] R. Casillo, The Empire of Stereotypes: Germain de Staёl and the idea of Italy (New York, 2006), pp. 2-3.

[52] Jeffrey, Review, p. 183.

[53] Jeffery, Review, p. 194.

[54] Brand, Italianate Fashion, p. 14.

[55] M. Shelley, ‘The English in Italy’, Westminster Review, VI (1826), pp. 325-41, 326-7.

[56] Shelley, ‘The English’, p. 327.

[57] A. Szegedy-Maszak, ‘A Perfect Ruin: Nineteenth Century Views of the Colloseum’, Arion, 2, (1992), pp. 115-142, 127.

[58] T. Earle Welby (Ed.), The Complete Works of Walter Savage Landor, Vol. XI (London, 1930), p. 89.

[59] S. C. Hughson (Ed.), The Best Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, (Chicago, IL., 1892), p. 133.

[60] Hughson, Letters, p. 133.

[61] Percival, History, p. 170.

[62] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[63] ‘Introduction: The Cenci’ in Delphi Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Hastings, 2012).

[64] Hughson, Letters, p. 133.

[65] C. K. Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh 1815-1822: Britain and the European Alliance (London, 1925), p. 334.

[66] C. H. Phipps, Lord Normanby, The English in Italy in 3 Volumes, Vol. 2 (London, 1825), pp. 39-40.

[67] R. Cavaliero, Italia Romantica: English Romantics and Italian Freedom (London, 2005), p. 5.

[68] Cavaliero, Italia Romantica, pp. 6,8.

[69] Shelley, English, p. 330.

[70] Shelley, English, pp. 330-31.

[71] Laven, British Idea of Italy.

[72] Cavaliero, Italia Romantica, p. ix.

[73] K. Boardman, ‘The Ideology of Domesticity: The Regulation of the Household Economy in Victorian Women’s Magazines’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 33 (2000), pp. 150-164, 162.

[74] L. Davidoff &Hall, C., Family Fortunes (London, 1992), xviii.

[75] A. Rattansi, ‘Postcolonialism and its Discontents’, Economy and Society, 26 (2006), pp. 480-500, 482.

[76] Manning, History, p. 339-40.

[77] Manning, History, p. 353.

[78] Manning, History, pp. 383-9.

[79] Normanby, English, pp. 41-3.

[80] Normanby, English, pp. 76.

[81] ‘Constantine Henry Phipps’, Oxford Database of National Biography, (Accessed: 02/05/17).

[82] Shelley, English, pp. 328-9; R. Balzaretti, ‘British Women Travellers and Italian Marriages, c. 1789-1844’, in V. Babini, C. Beccalossi and L. Riall (Eds), Italian Sexualities Uncovered: The Long Nineteenth Century (1879-1914), (Basingstoke, 2015), p. 264.

[83] Shelley, English, p. 329.

[84] Shelley, English, p. 329.

[85] Shelley, English, p. 329.

[86] De Staёl, Corinne, p. 127.

[87] Jeffrey, Review, p. 192.

[88] Jeffrey, Review, p. 193.

[89] E. Simpson, ‘On Corinne, Or Italy’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, (Accessed: 27/04/17).

[90] Walchester, Our Own Fair Italy, p. 7.

[91] E. Simpson, ‘On Corinne, Or Italy’.

[92] E. Rigby, ‘Lady Travellers’, Quarterly Review, 76 (1844), pp. 98-136, 102.

[93] Rigby, Travellers, p. 103.

[94] M. Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (London, 1989), pp. 9-10.

[95] M.A.B, A Few Words on Women’s Work (London, 1859), p. 7.

[96] A. Stoler & Cooper, F., (Eds.), Tensions of Empire Colonial: Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley, CA., 1997), pp. 3-4.

[97] Such entanglements of race, class, gender, and national identity, offer support to the ideas of ‘Intersectionality’ proposed by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins. Crenshaw and Collins discussed the intersection of race, gender, class, sexuality and nationality, predominantly connected with the marginalising experiences of black men and women in twentieth-century America. However, such ideas appear to be equally applicable to British identity-making and the marginalisation of foreign and domestic ‘others’ in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe. See: K.W. Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrines, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, The University of Chicago Legal Forum, (Chicago, IL., 1989). P. H. Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (New York & London1990).

[98] D. Ludden, ‘Orientalist Empiricism: Transformations of Colonial Knowledge’, in C. A. Breckenridge & van de Veer, P., (Eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, (Philadelphia, PA.,1993), pp. 250-278, 270.

[99] Carastathis, Is Hellenism an Orientalism?, p. 4.


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The “Russian” Woman? Cultural Exceptionalism among Noblewomen in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia

In this article Darcie Mawby poses two important questions: firstly, to what extent did cultural exceptionalism exist among Russian noblewomen in the late imperial and revolutionary periods? Secondly, were Russian noblewomen part of a transnational European elite, or is national specificity integral to understanding their identity construction? In doing so Darcie provides important insights into the extent to which Russian noblewomen consciously engaged with national and international ideological developments related to marriage, education and adult vocations and the impact these interactions exerted on their sense of national identity. Through a comparison with the written work of English upper-class women, particularly travel accounts of Russia, Darcie identifies points of similarity and departure which highlight instances of transnational cultural crossover and national specificity. This article offers new interpretations of cultural exceptionalism and national identity in Europe during the increasingly global nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.

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Darcie Mawby

Author Biography 

Darcie Mawby is a Masters student in the Department of History at the University of Nottingham. This article formed part of her Undergraduate dissertation which was completed in the summer of 2017.

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